The often-hilarious aggrandizement of English football by the British media (particularly Sky Sports’ eye-assaulting, bombast-heavy ads for even the most insignificant of games) has made it something of a laughing stock. This year, though, the Premier League finally lived up to the hype, right up to the dying minutes of the last day of the season. It was a storyline more ridiculous than any Michael Bay film, but – unlike Bay’s cinematic output – it was great entertainment.
Eventual champions Manchester City went into the final day level on points with hometown rivals – and winners of 12 Premier League titles – Manchester United, but ahead on goal difference. Realistically, all they had to do was match United’s result and the title would be theirs. United won their game. City, in the final minute of regulation time, were losing 2-1 to a relegation-threatened QPR team who had been reduced to 10 men thanks to their captain Joey Barton’s unwise decision to unleash his inner demons (who should probably be played by multiple versions of Nic Cage in Barton’s biopic) on both of City’s Argentine strikers. City fans were already leaving the stadium, certain that their team had once again managed to blow a gilt-edged opportunity for glory (a long-standing habit). Instead, implausibly (given how poor their finishing had been for most of the game) and thrillingly, City scored twice in injury time to claim their first Premiership title and their first English league championship since 1968. The hugely talented – and hugely expensive – squad has begun to repay the millions of pounds invested in the club by its owner, Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
City deserved to win it, too. Over 38 games, they conceded the fewest goals, scored the most and, for much of the season, played some glorious attacking football that matched, or bettered, anything seen in the Premiership before. The team’s spine – goalkeeper Joe Hart, center back and captain Vincent Kompany, central midfielder Yaya Touré, and striker Sergio Agüero – were consistently excellent, particularly in the big games against other top sides. And, for the first half of the season at least, attacking midfielder David Silva was untouchable.
City also showed that they’re not just a collection of supremely talented individuals. The team displayed great resolve and courage too, particularly in recovering from an awful slump in form that handed United an eight-point lead with just six games left. Given manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s history of successfully navigating the closing stages of a season, it seemed City were doomed. But they kept fighting, held their nerve and scraped home at the last.
The challenge: Can City now begin an era of their own to rival United’s success over the past two decades? Others (most notably another benefactor of a billionaire owner, Chelsea, with two title wins in a row in the mid-2000s) have sparked talks of an end to United’s dominance in the past. United’s response? Winning the next three titles (and four of the next five). Chelsea – billionaire owner and all – finished sixth this year (although, for consolation, they did win the UEFA Champions League). Everything looks to be in place, though, for City’s tale to turn out differently.
For starters, their squad is the best in the league; something that, even at their peak, you couldn’t definitively say about Chelsea. And given the financial resources at City’s disposal, the gap is only likely to widen over the summer. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the one attribute that allowed United to compete in the transfer market with more wealthy rivals – the promise of winning trophies – is now applicable to City too. The only thing more astonishing than Ferguson’s team ceding that eight-point lead was that they were able to establish it in the first place (a fact that appears to be lost on those claiming Ferguson ‘blew it’; it’s doubtful any other manager would have come so close). This is far from a vintage United squad, particularly in midfield. To return to their former glory, they need to sign a few proven big names in the close season. Quite how they’ll do that now that their two richest competitors – Chelsea and Manchester City – can boast that they triumphed in Europe and at home respectively, isn’t clear. But if they’re to have any hope of stopping City from establishing dominance, they must.
You can get a good idea of how well-set City are by judging which of the other team’s players the two Manchester clubs would be desperate to sign. For City, you suspect only Wayne Rooney holds any great allure. And – possibly – Nemanja Vidic. United, on the other hand, would happily have Silva, Touré, Kompany, Nigel de Jong, Micah Richards, or Agüero. Six-two to City. Which is one better than United did in the Manchester derby in October.
As the final games of the season reached their conclusion, and City looked set to come second, it was easy to imagine that the team’s confidence would fall apart, that the manager, Roberto Mancini, would be sacked, their best players leave for a club that could actually close the deal, and that United had seen off the latest pretenders to their crown. Instead, Agüero’s exhilarating winner may be the goal that finally sinks Ferguson and sets City on the road to an equally long reign at the top.